Lesson Plans and Teaching Resources for Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet

A Feminist Analysis of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet

Should William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet be viewed as a feminist play? Is it a play which advocates for gender equality? In this blog post, I’ll argue that the answer is “yes”! And not only that. I think Romeo and Juliet offers a critique of how the lives of women and men alike are too often constrained by restrictive gender norms. Sound interesting? Explore this topic with your students by using the worksheets in this Complete Teaching Unit on Romeo and Juliet. 

First, let’s examine the play’s critique of patriarchy. Before Juliet even appears onstage, her father and a male suitor hold a conversation about when and to whom she will get married. By including this scene, Shakespeare reminds audiences that Juliet is growing up in a patriarchal society where girls have little control over their fates — and were often treated as objects of exchange between men. In Act 3, Scene 5, Capulet says to Juliet, “As you be mine, I’ll give you to my friend” (3.5.203).

Even in today's world, traditional weddings are staged in a manner which conveys that women are merely objects of exchange within a male economy. For in a traditional wedding ceremony, the bride is walked down the aisle by her father and then handed over to the groom.

Second, Shakespeare's play offers a subtle critique of the ways in which Juliet is physically confined to a series of cages. Throughout the first half of the play, the character of Juliet only ever appears in scenes that are set inside the domestic sphere — usually inside her bedroom. So not only is she given almost no voice in the question of who she’ll marry, but Juliet is physically confined to the Capulets’ estate (and leaves only once to make confession in church).

By contrast, Romeo enjoys the freedom to explore almost every corner of Verona: we see him roaming in the woods, hanging out in the streets, crashing the Capulets’ masquerade ball, and climbing over the wall of the Capulets’ garden. Incidentally, the name “Romeo” is symbolic for at least two reasons: 1) Yes, the name resounds with the word “romantic.” 2) But the name also suggests the ways in which Romeo is always moving: roaming, roving, on the run.

Yet despite being confined and controlled in all of the ways I’ve just described, Juliet is the single most admirable character in the play. She is highly perceptive, articulate, courageous, willing to speak out against patriarchy, willing to take risks for love….

Shakespeare gives Juliet some of the best lines in the entire play. In the balcony scene, for example, it is Juliet who says, “My bounty is as boundless as the sea, / My love as deep. The more I give to thee, / The more I have, for both are infinite” (2.2.140-142). And at the very end of the balcony scene, it is Juliet who exclaims, “Parting is such sweet sorrow / That I shall say ‘Good night’ till it be morrow” (2.2.199-201).

Indeed, while Juliet doesn’t have power in society at large, her eloquence and poise do give her power within the context of her romantic relationship with Romeo. In the balcony scene, Juliet is not only positioned above Romeo but exerts control over the direction of their conversation. She asks questions, gives commands, interrupts, makes plans for them to be married. After comparing herself to a falconer, Juliet compares Romeo to the “bird” which she keeps on a leash so she can “let it hop a little from [her] hand” and then “pluc[k] it back again” (2.2.192-194).

Of equal importance, Juliet exhibits tremendous courage by undertaking a series of calculated risks. She is willing to rebel against her parents, willing to take the risk of drinking a sleeping potion, willing to fake her own death in hopes of achieving a triumphant rebirth (i.e. the revival of her life and her romantic relationship).

Finally, Shakesepear's play offers a trenchant critique of how the lives of men are also diminished by restrictive gender norms. The influence of toxic gender norms is put front-and-center from the very first scene in the play. In Act 1, Scene 1, the Capulet servants instigate a swordfight with the Montague servants which is only stopped by the arrival of the Prince. In the play’s opening lines, the Capulet servants even boast about subduing the Montague men and then sexually assaulting the Montague women. A character named Sampson says, “Draw if you be men,” revealing that he believes men can prove their masculinity by showing their willingness to fight (1.1.63). 

This toxic gender ideology will raise its horrific head again is the pivotal scene where the play shifts from comedy to tragedy (which happens in the very middle of the play, in Act 3, Scene 1). Toxic masculinity is what motivates Tybalt to kill Mercutio — and what motivates Romeo to kill Tybalt. This leads to the banishment of Romeo, to the killing of Paris, and eventually to the tragic demise of the romantic couple, Romeo and Juliet.

Because Romeo and Juliet are able to carve out a romantic relationship premised on gender equality, they raise our hopes for the possibility the miniature utopia which they’re able to achieve might spread to the rest of the world. But those hopes are dashed by the pernicious influence of patriarchal power and toxic gender norms.

 

The Balcony Scene in Romeo and Juliet

Teach It Today!

If you're a teacher who would like to explore this topic with your students, please check out my Complete Teaching Unit on Romeo and Juliet. The unit is loaded with worksheets, discussion questions, and writing prompts which focus on how gender norms shape the decisions and behavior of characters like Romeo, Juliet, Mercutio, Tybalt, and many other characters.

Save yourself dozens of hours of prep time while motivating students to be highly engaged. Check out this Complete Teaching Unit on Romeo and Juliet. You'll use it for years to come!

Romeo and Juliet Complete Teaching Unit by Rigorous Resources

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